Like a fine wine that improves with age, 56-year-old Jeff King added another big victory to a resume studded with them on Sunday.
King, 56, of Denali Park, snatched his record ninth victory in the Kuskokwim 300 sled-dog race that starts and ends in the southwest Alaska city of Bethel, crossing the finish line around 11 a.m. behind 12 dogs, only two fewer than he started with. King's time of 40 hours, 30 minutes, 10 seconds was his eighth fastest time in a Kuskokwim history that dates back to 1988.
"I'm sick and tired of people thinking I'm old. I feel great. I don't have an ache or pain and I've never had a better dog team," King told KYUK radio at the finish line.
The 300-mile race, run in bitter sub-zero cold most years, was comparatively balmy this time. The temperature at the finish line was 32 degrees.
By winning, the four-time Iditarod champion beat back challenges offered by an array of 20-something challengers who couldn't keep up with the veteran musher's speedy dogs. King is among the 68 mushers entered in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, beginning the first Saturday of March in downtown Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.
King snatched the lead by passing 23-year-old defending champion and early leader Rohn Buser of Big Lake between Aniak and Kalskag midway through the race that is largely run atop the frozen Kuskokwim River. He extended his lead from there to the finish line.
"I know my way around the course and seem to have good aptitude for making a race with these rules and distance," King told KYUK.
King's championship record at the Kuskokwim 300 extends back 22 years to his first win in 1991. And his last victory in the world's richest middle distance race turned out to be a good omen – he went on in 2006 to claim the Iditarod title, too.
The Kusko victory is worth $22,000 of a fat purse of $110,000, the biggest in Kuskokwim 300 history.
Tony Browning of Nenana finished second, 65 minutes behind King to pick up $16,500 for the best finish of his career, racing behind a team of dogs from fellow Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister's kennel that the latter plans to run in the Iditarod. "When I left Kalskag, my whole team started throwing up," Browning told KYUK at the finish line. Before long, however, his dogs recovered. "I knew what this team could do. Really we just came over to put some good, hard miles on them, because this is the place to do it."
Hometown favorite Pete Kaiser finished third to earn $11,000, and 2011 Kusko champion Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof was fourth, picking up $7,700.
"The trail is very fast," race manager Zach Fansler noted on Saturday. "It's a little warm, obviously, for the dogs but it's pretty windy. For a while there, they were right near record pace."
Some top mushers entered in this year's Kusko decided to pull out before the race started Friday night in Bethel. Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks pulled out. So did Allen Moore, who won the Copper Basin 300 last weekend, and his wife Aily Zirkle, the Iditarod runnerup last year. Fansler said some teams had trouble getting their teams from Fairbanks to Anchorage to Bethel because of lousy weather earlier in the week.
Kukokwim 300 Finishers
1) Jeff King, Denali Park, 40:30:10; 2) Tony Browning, Nenana, 41:35:25; 3) Peter Kaiser, Bethel, 42:01:50; 4) Paul Gebhardt, Kasilof, 42:14:40; 5) Cim Smyth, Willow, 42:22:47; 6) Rohn Buser, Big Lake, 42:24:49; 7) Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Norway, 42:26:02; 8) Josh Cadzow, Fort Yukon, 43:27:12; 9) Ramey Smyth, Willow, 43:36:21.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com